Tag Archives: race

Race-ing at the AWP

17 Feb


A series of exchanges between the poets Tony Hoagland and Claudia Rankine has recently come to wider attention. During a reading at this month’s AWP conference in Washington, D.C., Rankine presented a critique of Hoagland’s poem “The Change” (as well as going into some detail about previous exchanges with Hoagland himself). Hoagland responded, via email, though the content of this response, as far as WiP knows, has not officially been released publicly. Subsequently, Rankine has posted on her website an invitation for open letters — letters which would “attempt to move the conversation away from the he said–she said vibe toward a discussion about the creative imagination, creative writing and race.” (Please visit Rankine’s website to view both her statement at the AWP and her open-letter invitation.)

What follows is the first part of what I hope will be a multi-part consideration of the topic, as identified in Rankine’s invitation.

1. The Ambitions of “Could”

To begin a consideration of how ideas and feelings about race intersect with the creative imagination and the creative writing community requires an assessment — as cold as possible — of one’s own role in such a landscape. The eye of every storm is the I, and to deny this when one begins writing is to set out on the road toward homily or diatribe. So here I sit, in my Pasadena-comfortable home: an almost completely unknown white, male poet. (Note the desperate qualifier there, hanging on for dear life; note the anxious, reflexive use of the racial and gender identifiers.) My first book of poems will be published in April by a small university press.

Rankine’s invitation is meant to foster a congenial atmosphere where differing opinions are expressed in a thoughtful format. In the end, we emerge with a clearer picture of the views of our community (the creative writing community) on the subject of race. An unobjectionable project to be sure, and yet upon reading the invitation, the thought that I might actually accept was driven largely by a personality trait whose blessings are decidedly mixed. Enter ambition. For me, the question became not what do I have, if anything, to add to this debate? The question became what could I add? The shift is a troublesome one, I think, though perhaps familiar to most of us: How much we swim in a world of our own wanting, our own ambitions: what will get me noticed? What will sell my book? What will help my career? And this blog post is no better; its deflections should be granted no leniency: I want, I want, I want.

Of course, my could isn’t all bad. With a subject of significant cultural importance, quantity does in some respect trump quality: we widen the conversation to widen the conversation. The means, in other words, becomes the ends. (Responses to tragedies work along similar grounds. We didn’t talk about the Arizona shooting with any real belief that we could come up with a satisfactory answer to the ever-present Why [did this happen]? We talked about the shooting to talk about the shooting. We talked about it because we’re humans and we’re comforted by the act of spilling out what’s inside us through our unique gift of language.) In this respect, the shift to the could allows our ambitions to lead us toward catharsis. And not just catharsis. Ambition can prod new voices to speak, and without new voices our conversations about complex subjects would inevitably windup in a stalemate of tiresome arguments.

But what of the more prosaic aspects of my shift to “what could I say”? What happens when we focus our creative attentions on the subject of “race” because our ambition also understands “race” (the subject as a whole, no matter which angle one approaches it from) as a commodity that has a high value — for better and worse — within our marketplace? Obviously, most of us aren’t so cynical as to be motivated exclusively by such concerns. We write what we honestly feel — we think we do — we try to, at least — and yet the prosaic concerns remain: How can I position myself to get ahead in such a competitive landscape?

These two motivations for talking about race (the “cathartic,” let’s rather sloppily call it for now, and the “prosaic”) continually intersect in our subsequent conversations. To talk about the ways we see racial attitudes expressed and examined in the work of our colleagues, should, one would hope, focus on the work itself. But often our focus shifts away from the work itself and becomes a way to express our frustrations with what we perceive to be inequities in the marketplace. And arguments about the marketplace — especially about markets as tiny as ours — tend to fill with gossip and descend rapidly into bitterness. We see this dynamic at work in the internecine fighting that seems to continually erupt within the poetry world.

Yet this conjoining of the two motivations is not very often acknowledged, at least beyond a perfunctory genuflection at the altar of subjectivity. Most of us — myself included — are loathe to admit that our critical opinions are significantly shaped by anything other than a clear-headed examination of the writer’s writing. We tell ourselves that we can keep the writer’s public persona — as well as our own career frustrations, friendships, enmities, etc. — separate from the work under our review. But then again we human beings tell ourselves a lot of things, and nearly all of these sweet-nothings are laced with some measure of rationalization.